Night at St. Francois State Park leaves one “batty”
By Jo Schaper
I’m happy to report my knee is healing nicely.
Whatever I was doing at 9:30 last Saturday night, (thrashing through the brush along Coonville Creek following John Platt, graduate student from Central Missouri University, out to his mist net sites where the order of the night was to capture whatever bats happened by) left my mind as I tripped on an unseen, but projecting root.
The world spun. My good camera was around my neck, with the lens extended and the off-camera corded flash was in my right hand. The heck with the bare legs. Save the camera equipment!
Somehow, I managed to do that. After all the exertion, the mist net was empty. “Hey, I think I got one down here,” came a dim voice from below, where a second net extended across the creek.
With my knee on fire, I splashed into the creek in my suede boots. At least the water was cool. This net held a small, somewhat angry northern long-eared bat, tangled in the thin threads of the mist net.
“Calm down, little guy. We’ll get you out of there, and you’ll be on your way in no time,” soothed Platt.
June 21st at St. Francois State Park was a unique opportunity for the general public to learn about bats, small flying mammals that make up one-quarter of the world’s mammals. The day’s programs were designed to put together kids, families, bat scientists and bats: a crafts program as a general introduction, an evening program featuring live bats and lots of bat facts presented by Sybill Amelon, U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist and bat researcher from the Northern Research Station in Columbia,and once darkness fell, mist netting for bats along the creek, by volunteers under the direction of Amelon and Tony Elliott and Shelly Colatskie, cave ecologists for the Missouri Dept. of Conservation.
Already intrigued by bats, we skipped the crafts, which drew in about 80 visitors, with children outnumbering adults almost two to one. Park naturalist Jamie Hubert counted 200 people over the course of the afternoon and evening.
If anyone tells you children have short attention spans, don’t believe them. Many of those kids, drawn in by that most fascinating of little creatures at four in the afternoon, were still going strong and full of questions, clustered around the researchers’ table at nine that night.
“Not only were they paying attention, but they were absolutely immersed in the experience and LOVED it! I know it was a challenge to process the bats with these young kids hovering around,” said Hubert. “They were engaged in science in a way that they don’t get at school or anywhere else.”
“Don’t these guys have the best jobs?” she asked the crowd.
One boy replied, “No, that would be the NFL.”
Another boy of maybe 8 or 9 said, “No way. I want to do THAT.” And pointed to the researchers.
Usually, park programs concentrate on public education. And while this one did so, it had another purpose: to establish a baseline for bats on the park. Every state park has a species list which names the plants and animals which occur there. Part of the naturalist’s duties is to maintain the list; sometimes the public helps, both by voluntarily listing what they find, and as a result of “what is this?” questions to staff.
“We had 8 nets placed in two different locations and had roughly 16 bats of 6 species (Little Brown, Big Brown, Eastern Red, Evening, Tri Colored and Northern Long Eared Bat) found during the evening,” said Colatskie. “Sybill had Anabats (a bat “tricorder” which can identify bats from their calls, and records the data in real time) set up and she taught her Master Naturalists how we process bats. It was an awesome time.”
St. Francois had only little brown and tri-colored bats listed prior to last Saturday. Hubert suspected there were more when she set up the program. Such baseline data is extremely important, especially now in the face of white-nose-syndrome, a bat fungal disease which threatens entire species.
“We need to know what we have now,” Amelon explained, “if we want to save bats for the future.” She and her Master Naturalists set up at one netting site across the road from those near the picnic shelter. Nets were checked every 15 minutes for bats. The bats fly into the nets, which are fine enough they are not detected by the bat’s radar. They get tangled in the net, and have to be released by hand.
Megan Harris, U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist from Poplar Bluff and volunteer Lynda Mills processed bats as they arrived, carried in paper or cloth bags after being extricated from the nets. Bats were identified as to species, weighed, measured, sexed and then released unharmed. Across the way, Amelon placed a small fluorescent light tag on the backs of bats, then recorded their zig zag flight against the night sky as they took off.
“Bats are fascinating creatures,” Amelon said. “We don’t want to lose them, and we have to understand them if we don’t want that to happen.”